SPU professor Stephen Newby’s Free Boy musical: untold local story of slavery
This February to May, while Associate Professor of Music Stephen Newby taught classes at Seattle Pacific, a group of local artists toured the Pacific Northwest in a van, performing a new musical he composed.
In total, about 60,000 students heard Newby’s songs over the course of 150 performances.
For Newby, each composition has something new to teach and has some part of him in it. “Every new work is like a child,” Newby says. “I feel deeply connected to it.”
However, he sees working with people as the most rewarding part of his work. So, when Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater asked him to compose the music for Free Boy, an original production based on the true story of a young slave and master in Washington territory, he couldn’t turn it down.
The production is part of 5th Avenue’s Adventure Musical Theater Touring Company (AMT), which brings musical theater to elementary and middle school students throughout the Pacific Northwest.
All AMT productions are original, written by local writers and composers, directed and performed by local artists, and designed to educate students while telling stories of the region’s unique history and culture.
Free Boy, based on a book by the same name, is one that author and historian Lorraine McConaghy first envisioned 10 years ago.
McConaghy was preparing for an exhibit at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) when she came across the story of a Charles Mitchell, a 13-year-old boy who escaped from Washington Territory — and his master, James Tilton — to freedom in Canada.
While she included Mitchell’s story in the exhibit, McConaghy felt it was too important to keep quiet.
“It just wouldn’t leave me alone, and Judy [Bentley, co-author] and I talked about doing a biography on the master and slave that re-balanced the record,” McConaghy said. “Charles Mitchell was like a footnote in James Tilton’s life.”
By following links and connecting various historical records, Newby and Bentley wrote a book for young adult readers based on Charles’ story. When the 5th Avenue Theater’s Producing Artistic Director Bill Berry came across Free Boy in the MOHAI gift shop, he immediately proposed it as the next AMT production.
“My job was to make sure that text came alive,” says Newby, who has been teaching and directing choirs at SPU since 2004. He hopes that kids walk away singing some of the melodies.
Newby feels that Free Boy addresses big questions of enslavement and the desire to be free, asking, “Are we able to recognize the things that enslave us?”
“The story of the African-American enslavement needs to be seriously recast into the cannon of our American history,” Newby said. “Too many stories have been omitted. We won’t get to a place of radical reconciliation, healing, and bringing the kingdom of God to Earth until we really wrestle with these stories.”